JONAS RUST. Farmer. Soldier. Priest. Sailor. Husband. Lover.

 Once there was a man who was very much in love, but didn’t know that, not yet. Why should he? He had never had this feeling before, he wasn’t used to it, didn’t know what to do with it. And no one in the village had felt it either, so it wasn’t something he’d learned from the faces of the blacksmith nor of the blacksmith’s wife nor of the blacksmith’s mistress, nor of his old schoolmaster, nor of the woman at the market who told fortunes for a groat. He couldn’t recognise love from the face of the pastor in church on Sundays, because it simply wasn’t there, not for all the man talked of loving God. And there was no love on the faces of his parents, and he’d had a good chance to study those faces, they’d been married all his life (and quite a lot longer too, he shouldn’t wonder) and yet there had never been even a spot of loving softness on those faces to be seen and recognised and understood and put aside for future use.

 He didn’t know what love was, nor of its power.

 Jonas Rust was not a handsome man, he had pimples on his face. His eyes were bleary and bloodshot, his nose swelled at the tip to a fat bulbous bulge. His chin was speckled with stubble that prickled coarse against his fingers when he rubbed it in thought, and it was always there, no matter how much he tried to shave it off. When Jonas felt any emotion strongly – and it wasn’t often he felt anything, he didn’t give that side of his life much attention – the whole of his face would turn rash red, and he looked embarrassed and ashamed.

 When he married Elena, it was widely believed around the village that he had got the better deal. Because if Elena was not strictly speaking a beauty, if she still had those same coarse features of all the peasant stock, if in repose her face was hard and looked as if it had been rough-hewn from stone, if she had neither the background that lent towards refinement nor the inclination to practise refinement of her own volition, if – to be blunt – her nose had a fat bulbous bulge all of its own – then she was, still, a lot prettier than Jonas.

 He had married her because his parents had suggested it. And she had married him because her parents had thought the suggestion was a good one. He was the right age – and so was she – and he had strong arms that could work a farm, and she had wide child-bearing hips. Love didn’t come into it.

 And yet sometimes, when Jonas would wake in the morning, and Elena was still sleeping beside him, and her head was so close to his, and the eyes shut so tight to keep the dreams in, and her hair sprawled haphazard across her face, and her arm lying against his chest – and all so still, all so peaceful, and only the sound of her light breathing to hear, and her breast bobbing up and down in time to it – sometimes, Jonas would look at his wife, and he would feel the pull of something warm and soothing in his heart, and he wouldn’t know what it could be – and it’d come on him like a rush, it’d overwhelm him quite, and his eyes would bead with tears though he was sure he wasn’t sad or hurting.

 One day Elena said to him, “Husband, I am with child.” And it meant those hips would come in useful after all, and Jonas was pleased.

 The men of the village that night took Jonas out, and made him drink ale and sing songs. Jonas had never drunk so much ale before, and for a while that made him feel very happy, and then it made him feel quite nauseous, and by the small hours of the next day he’d gone all the way back to happiness again; he was so happy, and there was that warm soothing feeling in his heart whenever he thought of Elena, and he thought of Elena a lot. “What will you name your child, if he’s a boy?” And Jonas said he’d name him Jonas – not so much after him, but after his father, and after his grandfather before him. “And if it’s a little girl?” “Elena,” said Jonas. “Here’s to little Jonas! Here’s to little Elena!” And they all raised their tankards as one, and drank, and Jonas Rust’s face grew full red with all the emotion and all the excess of alcohol.

 He didn’t remember getting home that night. But that’s mostly because he didn’t.

 THE ADVENTURE ON THE BATTLEFIELD

When Jonas woke the next morning Elena’s head was not next to him upon the pillow. Instead, a gruff man in uniform was throwing a bucket of water over him. “Get on your feet, soldier!” he said. “You’re in the army now!” Jonas pointed out he really wasn’t in the army; he had a wife to go home to; he was going to be a father. The uniformed man laughed. “Everything changes,” he said. When Jonas protested further, the man beat him three times with a stick, so Jonas decided not to protest any more.

 He was told he had to march, and so he did, for days, to places Jonas had never seen before; the outside world to the village seemed to him a similar conglomeration of trees, rivers and fields as he’d left at home, but all here shuffled into slightly different orders. Alongside him were made to march several of the villager friends he had been drinking with, but they didn’t want to talk; one of them had a deep bruise across his head that was turning purple and fleshy, and sometimes he’d stumble, and sometimes he’d weep, and one time when he did both at once one of the gruff men in uniform pulled him out of line and Jonas never saw him again.

 They marched for a full week, and then reached the coast. Jonas had never seen the sea before, and marvelled at how blue it all was, his heart soared at the beauty of it. He and his fellow volunteers were all put aboard a ship, and the ship set sail, and Jonas saw a lot more of the blue sea than he really wanted to, he had his fill of it after the first day, and he was told he’d find his sea legs soon enough, that sooner or later he’ stop feeling quite so sick – and Jonas waited patiently for that to happen, but it never did, and each morning he’d wake up, eat a biscuit, then go to vomit it over the side. Sometimes the sea was rough. Sometimes the sea was still like a pond, so safe and even inviting – and as Jonas added his breakfast to its vast immensity the sea would make the most delightful splashing noises in acceptance.

 And Jonas would stare out at the sea, and watch his trace of sick merge with the deep blue, be swallowed up by it until it could be seen no more, and at these moments he would allow himself to think of Elena, and he began to associate the aftertaste of vomit he had in his mouth with the image of Elena in his head, and it made the vomit seem a sweet and welcome thing. And he wondered whether she could have been happy here with him, wondered whether she would find the sea a beautiful thing or whether it would make her sick too, wondered if he ever saw her again whether he would ever find the words to describe it all to her. He didn’t dare spend too long staring out to sea, or daydreaming of his wife. If he were caught, he was beaten three times with a stick.

 He reached another coast, and the land was full of trees, rivers, fields. But he was assured these fields were foreign, that he should be wary of them. He marched all the way to war.

 He wasn’t given much training. There wasn’t time, the battles wouldn’t wait for him. He was given a bayonet, but told that there was no ammunition for it, he’d have to use the blade. He was shown how to use the blade. How, when he stuck a blade into a man, he’d need to do it with all his strength, because a human being is a hard thing to break. How, when the man was down, he’d need to put his foot upon the body for purchase, and then grip the handle of the bayonet with both hands, and then push the blade in as deep as he could, and then twist it, and then wriggle it, and then pull the blade free. It was very important to retrieve the bayonet, he was told, it was just as important a part of the procedure as bayoneting the man in the first place. How too many bayonets were left sticking out of enemy’s chests the morning after a battle. How losing a weapon because of overenthusiastic and hasty bayoneting was a common failing for the sloppy soldier, and that it left him vulnerable to attack from bayonets himself. How bayonets were expensive things, and that the army couldn’t afford the loss of equipment.

 He was told that the enemy had ammunition, so the likelihood was that he wouldn’t get close enough to them on the battlefield to use his blade. Jonas asked whether he could just have a gun instead of a bayonet, and was beaten three times with a stick.

 The morning of his first battle there were bugles blaring and there were cries for honour, and there was such excitement in the air – “Come on, lads!” shouted the gruff man in uniform, as if he’d never beaten anyone with a stick, as if they were all together in this, as if they were comrades, and Jonas felt a rush of – something, what? – pride? – there was a churning in his belly, and he believed he had a purpose at last, he was fighting for something, even if no one had explained to him what that was yet. And he thought, is this the same thing I felt waking next to Elena on the pillow? But his eyes didn’t start with tears, so he supposed it wasn’t quite – he supposed this wasn’t it.

 By the time Jonas had fought three battles he was a seasoned veteran. All of his village friends by now were dead, or missing, which was probably the same thing. Jonas had learned the secret to surviving battle. You didn’t want to be too close to the front, because that’s where all the killing seemed to be going on. And you didn’t want to be too close to the back, because it was surprising how fast in retreat the back became the front, it could happen at a moment’s notice. Better to stay in the middle. Just be in the middle, where no one can see.

 Of course, Jonas had never killed anybody.

 On the morning of his fourth battle, Jonas had a premonition. His morning ritual now consisted of waking (alone, without Elena), eating a biscuit, and vomiting – the vomiting hadn’t stopped when he’d reached dry land, it was just something his body seemed to expect of him when it greeted the new day. And he would allow himself in the aftermath a few moments to think of Elena. And on this particular morning he realised he could no longer recall her face. He thought about it hard, really wrestled with his memory. But it was to no avail. He knew she had them, the eyes, the mouth, the hair – he knew that it was a pleasing combination, or at least pleasing to him, or at least better than he could have hoped for. But what that combination was now eluded him. And he knew that he’d lost it for good. He knew now he’d been taken too far away from Elena, that the lines between them could be stretched only so far without breaking. He knew he’d never go home again to refresh that memory. He knew he’d never see his wife’s face again, not for real, not in his imaginings, not ever. And he prodded at his emotions to see how that made him feel, and he couldn’t be sure, but he thought he burned bright red.

 There was a lot of confusion upon the battlefield that day. Smoke, and noise, and horses running scared free of their riders, and dead bodies as stepping stones in the mud. And Jonas couldn’t tell where the middle was, and in truth, he probably didn’t care. And the impossible happened – he found himself staring down an enemy soldier, and the enemy soldier stared down on him – and the soldier’s bayonet didn’t have any ammunition, it was just a blade, an ordinary blade, no better than Jonas’ blade. And the soldier looked frightened, and Jonas didn’t feel frightened, not just then.

 Jonas jabbed at the enemy. The enemy went down. And all that extensive training came back, and Jonas put his foot down hard upon the enemy’s chest to employ the killing thrust.

 And he remembered Elena’s face.

 There it was, there it was.

 And there it was, there, on the soldier’s face. There were the eyes, there was her hair. Her own particular little bulb of a nose, there, how could he have forgotten it!

 The soldier shouted something out, but it was in foreign speak – it may have been a cry for mercy, it may have been, “Get on with it!” But Jonas couldn’t kill the soldier, because the soldier was shouting through Elena’s mouth.

 He hesitated. And everything went black.

 *

When he woke he assumed he was dead, and he wasn’t, and that was a good thing, but he was lying face down in the mud, and that wasn’t a good thing, so he got up. And he wasn’t lying next to Elena, but at least he could remember her face, and he wouldn’t forget it again.

 He wondered where everybody was.

 Because the field was deserted. It was clear a battle had been there – once – recently. Cannonballs. Discarded bayonets, sticking uselessly out of the ground. Dead and dying horses all about. But not a man, no man, no one. Not alive. Not dead.

 “Hello!” called out Jonas, and he didn’t mind much which side responded, his own or the enemy’s.

 It was as if everybody had wandered off to another battle without him, and he wasn’t invited. It was as if they’d picked up all their dead, and tripped away quietly, on tippy-toes.

 He thought that maybe both armies were hiding behind the trees, sniggering at him. He actually went over to take a look.

 And then he sat back down upon the field, the churned up field; he found a hard dry mound of mud, he used it as a seat. And he waited for someone to find him and give him orders.

 After a few hours of this he got hungry, and walked into the forests, and picked berries to eat. And after a few days he got bored, and decided that the orders weren’t going to come.

 He wondered which direction the war had gone. And whether he should follow.

 That night he looked up into the sky, and began to count the stars. And he thought of Elena, and how she had used to sit outside with him on nights as still as this, and they’d both look up at the stars together. And they wouldn’t say a word, not a word. But she would take his hand, clasp her little fingers around his meat hook, and he remembered the way those fingers felt against his, not smooth, but certainly smoother – and always cool, no matter what the weather – and she’d sometimes squeeze those fingers tight into his palm, every few seconds another squeeze, like a second heartbeat – and how, with the very tips of her fingernails, she’d tickle at his skin.

 The next morning he woke up. And after he’d stretched, and after he’d vomited, he turned right around. And began to walk home.

 THE ADVENTURE WITH GOD

Jonas was going back home to Elena, and she was half a world away, and he knew that if he met anybody they would stop him. If enemy soldiers saw him, they would kill him. And if his own soldiers saw him, they would think he was a deserter; they would beat him three times with a stick, then beat him three times more, and then they would kill him. So Jonas kept off the roads, he stuck to the forests for the first few days. And he saw no one. And it was slow going, and he was impatient, so he began to take to the footpaths, alert at any moment to hide behind bushes or up trees. And he saw no one, and this was slow going too. And so eventually he walked down the roads quite openly, and he almost longed to see someone, to be given some sign of human life; he began to whistle, then sing loudly, then call out, “Is anyone there?” But he saw no one, there was no one to be seen.

 Presently, by which I mean within a few weeks, he came upon a church. It was just a little church, and Jonas could see no trace of the village that it had been built to serve. But there was stained glass in the windows, and a spire upon the roof, and assorted gravestones and tombs in the garden before the thick wooden doors. Jonas tried to read some of the names on these graves, but they were all so foreign sounding, and he couldn’t tell what these people had died from, or whether they had had family, or whether anyone had mourned them.

 It had been so long since Jonas had seen a living soul, and even seeing the marks of dead ones made him thrilled and made him terrified. He went up to those thick wooden doors three times, and three times turned away, he couldn’t bring himself to knock upon them, he’d run and hide behind the tombs, and his heart was in his mouth, and he’d be frightened. But at last he could put it off no more – he was crying out to see someone, anyone, anyone at all. He knocked firmly at the door. He stood his ground. And when there was no answer he pushed at it, and when it swung open for him, he stepped indoors.

 The sun was hot that day, and it had beaten down on him so that he’d felt very part of his body soak with sweat. But there was shade in the church, and the beam of light that streaked through the coloured glass seemed soft and comforting. He called out. He decided he would ask for sanctuary. He decided he would beg for mercy in God’s name, in a God he had never given much thought to, or wondered whether he’d even believed in. And if the sanctuary was denied him – well, at least then, even then, that would be something.

 There was no one there. And when he realised that, that he was still so alone, he sank upon the floor, and he cried. And the floor was so cool, and he slept there for a while, laid out before the altar like a sacrifice.

 He awoke, vomited. Out back he found bread, and great barrels of wine. He wondered if they had been spoiled. And he didn’t care, he had lived off berries and grass for so long, he wolfed down what he could, and it settled oddly in his stomach, and he sicked it back up, but he was well used to that. And he found a cassock, and a surplice – priest’s clothes, like those worn by the never-smiling pastor in his own village – and he realised how filthy his uniform was, mud-stained and piss-soaked and bloodied and sticking to his body in the heat. And he peeled his uniform off, and put on these clean clothes, and oh how good they felt against his skin.

 He slept in the church again. He slept for maybe a day, or three. And when he’d wake he’d swallow down some more food, and throw up again, and then sleep some more.

 He decided he could stay here forever. That he need never go home. That maybe his quest had ended. He read pages from the Bible, and he’d never been one for reading before, and it was hard work, he had to pick out the words with his finger and mouth them to get their sense. But he read that God was a merciful father, and a terrible and jealous brute, and that confused him, and he chose only to read the bits about mercy, and if he saw anything that looked as if it was sliding back into terror or jealousy he’d skip on to the next chapter.

 And he thought that to worship God must be a wonderful thing. He felt a peace inside him, a certain knowledge that he’d found his place, and he was such a little thing before God – but that being a little thing was the point, and little as he was he could still be filled to the brim with purpose. And he thought, is this the same thing that I felt waking next to Elena on the pillow? But his heart didn’t dance, so he supposed it wasn’t, not quite.

 And new priest as he was, when Jonas spoke to God, God replied.

 Jonas said, “It seems to me there’s no one left alive in the entire world.”

 God said, “There’s no one left alive in the entire world.”

 Jonas said, “But does that mean I’ll never see Elena again?”

 God said, “See Elena again.”

 Jonas was pleased that God was talking to him so directly. He supposed that now he was the last man left alive, God had less demands on his attention.

 And you’ll think it was all an echo, but this was no echo.

 “Is she waiting?” asked Jonas.

 “Waiting,” God assured him.

 But Jonas said, “Or should I serve you, stay here forever?”

 God said, “Stay here forever.”

 Contradictory advice there from God. But that was just as he’d been in the Bible, so that made sense. Jonas thought he’d better sleep on it. He took down from the wall a crucifix; on it, a radiant Jesus was nailed in effigy, smiling at him as he saved Jonas from all his sins. Jonas thanked him, and that night when he went to sleep Jonas cuddled Jesus close.

 And as he slept Jonas remembered how God had sounded, talking so close to his ear. But then he remembered Elena. And how Elena’s voice in the daytime had been blunt and forthright, it was a voice of the village, a voice of hard graft. But. But after it had got dark. After the doors to the cottage were shut, and they were alone. Then Elena would whisper to him sometimes, she’d come up close and say things in his ear – so close, that he’d goose as his hairs tickled, so close, her breath seemed warm and wet. And the things she’d say.

 When he woke the next morning Jonas looked at the crucifix. And Jesus was still bolted fast to it for eternal glory. But his face was gone, and he wore now the face of Elena.

 And Jonas decided to move on.

 And he spoke to God, he wanted to thank God for his time, and apologise he could not be the faithful servant he had hoped to be – he had a wife waiting for him half a world away, and not even merciful God could stop him from finding her. But God didn’t reply. There wasn’t even an echo. And if mankind had vanished from the face of the earth, then maybe God had vanished too.

 Jonas took off his priestly robes, and changed back into his mud-spattered uniform. It stank, and his skin crawled at the recognition of it, but it seemed more honourable somehow. And he went back out into the world.

 THE ADVENTURE WITH THE LITTLE FISHES

And presently, by which I mean within a few months, he came upon the coast. There was the sea – and he was so glad to be reunited with his old friend that he vomited expansively there and then at the very sight of it.

 He inspected the ships in the harbour. The fastest would be a tall galleon, with a mast that stretched out high and scraped the clouds. But Jonas didn’t know how to make it start. And he tried out a smaller ship, with sails and rigging – but he didn’t know how he could climb the rigging and steer the wheel at the same time, he didn’t know how to persuade the winds to push him safely home. So he settled upon a tiny rowing boat, with two oars jutting out either side. It’d take a while for it to cross an entire sea, but any fool could wield an oar.

 He set out that very moment. There was no time to lose. He was going home to Elena, and she was still half a world away, and no one could stop him.

 Before even the first night fell, Jonas realised he was very hungry. And he tried to catch a fish to eat; he leaned over the side and tried to grab hold of one, but they were too smart and too wriggly, and swam through his fingers. And he was very thirsty too. And he cupped the sea water, at least that couldn’t get away – and he brought it up to his mouth, but at the very taste of the salt his stomach rejected it.

 As darkness fell he lay back in his boat, and the sea was so calm, and the waves bobbed him about gently as if rocking him to sleep – and he knew it didn’t matter how tenderly it would do it, this sea was going to kill him. “I’m going to die,” he said, out loud. And at that there was such a relief. He’d given up, he didn’t have to push himself any further. He’d failed, but it was all right, because in the end everyone fails. That’s what the sea was telling him, he could hear the murmurs of that truth as it splashed against the sides of the boat and made the wood creak. And Jonas felt so happily suddenly – because he realised how hard he’d pushed himself, that his feet were so bloodied with blisters that every single step was a limp, that his whole body ached with effort and fatigue. He’d been so strong once, strong enough to farm, strong enough for Elena, and now he was as weak as a baby, and he was going to die, but it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter, everyone had vanished and now so would he, it didn’t matter. And there could be joy in the acceptance of this, and that there could be joy in something so unexpected was a joy in itself: his work was done, it filled his heart, it made him laugh, he laughed for such a long time. And he thought, well, is this the same thing I felt waking next to Elena on the pillow, how about this one? But with Elena his body had bristled, every single nerve had stood to attention, he’d felt so alive – and so that couldn’t be this, not this, when all he felt creeping over his body was an insensate numbness.

 A fish slapped wetly into the rowing boat. And Jonas seized hold of it fast, before it could jump back into the sea.

 He looked at the fish. The fish looked at him. Jonas could have bitten into it right there and then, as raw as it was, he could imagine it filling his stomach, and he growled involuntarily at the thought.

 But the fish, the fish. The fish had Elena’s face.

 Elena looked out at him. The eyes now human and round and so so large. Over its scales ran fronds of hair, blonde hair, and Jonas remembered how when he’d stroked Elena’s hair it had felt so smooth his fingers would run off it, when that hair had brushed against his naked body he would soften and melt and turn to goo. And her smile, the fish was smiling, its wide ‘o’ mouth opening and closing as it gulped for air was framed by the reddest of lips, Elena’s lips, Elena’s lips curved into that perfect smile he’d only see rarely, but the mere sight of which would fuel him for days of back breaking labour in the fields, which would tell him that in spite of all, in spite of his dullness and plainness, she wanted him, and she wanted only him.

 “I can’t eat you,” he said. “How could I eat you?”

 And he kissed the fish, very sweetly. And he curled up with it in his arms, and he felt its struggles cease, and then he went to sleep.

 And he remembered the first time he and Elena had kissed. It had been their wedding night, and they’d both been so nervous, and after the church service they hadn’t even talked – he was husband and she was wife and they were bound together now for all time and they’d made such fearful vows and they didn’t even know each other. And that evening they ate, and throughout the meal they said nothing, and Jonas had begun to feel a little irritable, had he married a mute? And then he began to feel afraid, how could he make the mute happy, how could he make anyone happy? He was a fool. And this would be their life forever more, and there would be no tenderness to it, no warmth. And she said, “I want to try something. Please.” And she’d come to him, right close – and, bless her, he could see she was shaking, she was still a little girl, her eyes were so wide, her pupils large, and then she shut them tight, and she took a deep breath – and Jonas’ eyes were still open, he had no idea what was coming, even then – he was a fool – and she leaned forward, and she let her lips brush his, and it was so tentative, and he didn’t know how to respond, he was a fool. “There then,” she said. “That’s that.” And he felt ashamed.

 An hour passed before Jonas had said, “You are my wife now, and I want to try again.” She nodded at this, a little grimly. She closed her eyes. And this time he was ready, and so was she – and his lips chewed at hers, and hers sucked at his, and he didn’t know how they’d kept breathing through it, but they had – and her bottom lip seemed to grow inside his mouth, it became a whole new expanse of flesh he could play on.

 He woke and he was snogging a dead fish and he recoiled.

 It had Elena’s face but it wasn’t Elena, and it couldn’t kiss as well as she could. And he wouldn’t put up with any substitutes, not now, he wanted his wife, he wanted the woman he loved. And he knew it was love now, that was what it was called. And he split open the fish’s body and bit into it deep, and he drank the blood to quench his thirst. And all the while Elena’s dead face looked up at him on the fish’s body, saying, eat your fill, my darling, eat and stay alive and come back to me.

 He rowed hard the next day. He rowed hard every day. He didn’t know which direction to row in. He just had to trust that each pull on those oars would bring him closer to his love.

 And every day too a new fish would drop into his boat at supper time, and Elena would give him permission to eat her, and he would.

 THE ADVENTURE WITH THE GIRL

He was in love with Elena, and she was half a world away, but what did that matter, this was love, he knew it was love! Half a world away was just distance. He would have her yet. And she was so far, but so close regardless – she was always there; he thought of her constantly; they sang to each other in the boat during the daytime, in the evening they counted stars, at night he’d tell her he loved her and curl up and go to sleep and wrap his arms around an oar and pretend it was her; he missed her, and it hurt how much he missed her, but he loved her too, he loved her, and so it was all right, so it was fine, so it was tolerable. Half a world away, but getting closer day by day.

 And presently he reached his own country. By which I mean, a year or two.

 He walked through a nation he had fought for long ago. He’d shelter in mansions and palaces and town halls, and the walls would be filled with painting, and each painting was of Elena. In the banks he would find coffers of gold coins and paper notes, and Elena would gaze out from each and every one of them – Jonas stole some money, but soon threw it away, what need did he have for money now? And in the square of every city and every town and every single jumped-up municipality there’d be statues of famous people, and on plinths Jonas would read that they were generals and ministers and kings. But they all had the same face, and that face wasn’t grand, and it looked down on Jonas not in stern marble judgment but in love.

 Getting closer, day by day.

 And as he walked, a little thought began to grow in his head. It was just a seed at first, and it was a silly idea, and when it first popped into his thoughts he actually smiled at its idiocy. But it took root. And he began to wonder.

 Jonas has transformed the world. Every statue and painting, every fish in the sea, even Jesus Christ above, they had all become Elena. This is what his love had done.

 And now. As he neared his home at last. He couldn’t help it. Why? Why were there no statues of him?

 He wasn’t asking that Elena’s love should equal his. He’d heard what they’d all said at the wedding. How he wasn’t much of a catch. How he had got the better deal. He knew he couldn’t expect Elena to feel the same passion for him that he felt for her.

 But couldn’t her love have changed even one face?

 He walked through the forests that led him to his village, and he began to examine each and every passing squirrel, each bird, even the faces of wild flowers amongst the bracken. Elena every time. Every one an Elena, never a him.

 By the time he reached his village it was nightfall. In the darkness all the houses seemed still and dead, and he supposed that they were, this is what he’d done to them. He walked onwards, ever onwards, but now he didn’t need to rush, he kept his pace slow and steady, keeping to the shadows – stupidly – as if someone would now try to stop him, treading softly as if – stupider still – they would recognise him and welcome him and come back to life and in an instant their existence would change everything, all the years of hardship would have been swept away, they’d have meant not a jot, the love he had discovered for Elena would just magically vanish into thin air. And he wanted to stop. He wanted to stop, and delay the moment, now the moment was so near. He wanted to stop, but still he kept walking.

And ten more minutes, and he’d be past the blacksmith’s. Ten more minutes after that, past the farm. And then, just around the corner, and over the rise, his own cottage, his own life back, his love, his Elena.

 He was there. He had arrived. And he froze. He didn’t know why.

 But in the moonlight his cottage looked unreal, a memory of a place.

 He realised what he looked like. He realised how he smelled. He understood why Elena could not love him, not now. And he remembered all the hand holdings, all the ear whisperings, the strokings and the kissings, and none of it would mean a thing, none of it could matter if she didn’t love him back.

 He stared at the cottage. He stared at it all night. And at some point he felt himself cry, and he was surprised. But even here, on his own property, the animals in the yard, the sheep and the cows and chickens, he’d transformed them all to her, and she hadn’t transformed a one to him.

 At dawn he dried his eyes. He performed his morning vomit, respectfully, to his side. And then he turned. He began to walk away.

 And he heard a door.

 And he turned again.

 And there was another Elena face. But this time it was on the body of a little girl. How old? Three? Five? How long had he been away, really?

 She saw him, and stared at him doubtfully.

 He tried to speak. He’d forgotten how to speak. His tongue didn’t know what to do. He searched frantically through his memories. “Hello,” he croaked. Yes, that was it. “Hello,” he said again.

 He walked over to her. She put her finger in her mouth, wasn’t sure whether to run. “Hello,” said Jonas, “hello.” And now he was closer he could see that it wasn’t Elena’s face, not exactly. Yes, she was a girl, but beyond that, no, not Elena at all. She had pimples. She had a bulbous nose, and it was his bulbous nose. Her eyes were his eyes, and he could see they weren’t bleary and bloodshot, they were sincere and expressive and shining with new hope. And on her chin were little patches of blonde hair, and they were beautiful.

 His face was red with pride.

 “Hello,” said Jonas, one last time. And, trying harder. Stooping to her. “Is your Mummy in?”

 The little girl nodded.

 “Thank you,” said Jonas, and he smiled, and a weight seemed to fall from him, and his heart felt light – and he thought, yes, this is what it feels like, this is it. This is love. And  he pushed at his front door, and went into his cottage, and found his wife.

 

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